Gannon Murphy On: To truly know God is to love him. Religion and Piety As a Frame for Knowing God

By now you know that our second Evangelical Calvinism book was just released, the full title being: Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion. But as you also know Myk and I had a volume 1 Evangelical Calvinism book published under the title: Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (which this subtitle is also attached to our second volume as well). This post will be referencing one of the chapters found in EC1; a chapter written by Gannon Murphy on knowledge of God in John Calvin’s thought.

What I want to focus on, in regard to Gannon’s chapter is his brief but profound development of how the Latin terms religio and pietas function in Calvin’s theological offering when it comes to knowledge of God. As Murphy points out Calvin’s conception of knowledge of God was never a disembodied one; in fact it was more existential. It was never really a philosophical or abstract engagement with some sort of abstract brute conception of a substance that we could correlate through abstract reasoning to the God disclosed in Holy Scripture and Jesus Christ. No, as Murphy argues, for Calvin, knowledge of God was something more akin to knowledge in God; more particularly in Christ. Gannon up-points how the concepts of religio and pietas functioned in this type of dialogical/existential mode for the Christian knower coram Deo (‘before God’). Gannon writes (at length):

Religio and Pietas

The very beginning of the Institutes commences in a statement concerning that which constitutes true wisdom, to wit, that wisdom “consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” Some theologians have argued that this first statement is actually the entire point of the Institutes, a contestable, but not entirely meritless, claim.

It is perhaps customary in our technological age to think of knowledge as a purely apprehensive or propositional enterprise—we have knowledge of this object, or that thing, or such-and-such a set of data. The key to preserving Calvin’s doctrine of knowledge (cognitione), however, is to see it as something much fuller and more “holistic.” In sum, to truly know God is to love him. Theological knowledge is not merely propositional in nature or a matter of mere intellectual assent (assensus). Rather, it must also be experiential, stemming from love that also manifests itself in adoration, trust, fear, and obedience to God. Edward Dowey, for example, refers to Calvin’s concept of knowledge, as “existential knowledge.” The idea of coming to God merely in mind is an utterly foreign concept throughout the Calvinian corpus. Further, Calvin (like Luther) alludes to the nonsensical nature of conceiving of God as a mere object of knowledge.

Calvin uses the terms religio and pietas which, unfortunately, do not translate well into our English words, religion and piety, both of which tend to connote merely a system of ecclesiology or perfunctory, external religious observance. Both words in the Latin, however, denote something much deeper. Re-ligio derives from re, “again” and ligere, “to literally means “careful,” the opposite of negligens. Religio, then, means something more along the lines of “careful attention to” and to be “rebound.” Pietas, while often suggesting merely “dutifulness,” is better understood as “dutiful kindness,” stemming from the Latin root pius (literally, “kind”). Thus, pietas is friendly obedience toward the things of God. It is the perfect opposite of animosity toward godly things—to find oneself welcoming of, and delighting in, his or her Creator.

Calvin, characteristically never wanting to be misunderstood but always desiring clarity for his readers, defines religio as, “confidence in God coupled with serious fear—fear, which both includes in it willing reverence, and brings along with it such legitimate worship as is prescribed by the law.” On the other hand, pietas is “that union of reverence and love to God which the knowledge of his benefits inspires.” Expounded here is something rather far removed from trajectories that find natural theology as their starting point—the idea of an irrefragable knowledge of God garnered apart from reverence and revelation, that is, a special and specific Word from God. Rather, Calvin speaks of the first step of pietas being, “to acknowledge that God is a Father, to defend, govern, and cherish us, until he brings us to the eternal inheritance of his kingdom.”

That true knowledge of God cannot be torn asunder from pietas and religio means, then, that overly-philosophical speculation about the essence or substance of God is necessarily ruled out. Calvin derides such pursuits as “Epicurean,” as “frigid speculations,” and admonishes us rather to seek out “what things are agreeable to his nature.”[1]

Personally this resonates with me deeply; which is why Murphy’s chapter is so apropos in a book with the title Evangelical Calvinism. It is this embodied way of knowing God, by loving God that represents the proper kind of ‘pure religion’ and piety that Jesus himself claims sums up all of the Law and Prophets:

36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the great and foremost commandment. 39 The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”[2]

What this Calvinian mode towards knowledge of God kicks against, ironically, is any approach that would attempt to know God through discursive reasoning, or philosophical abstraction. What Calvin’s approach admonishes us to is to approach God through God in Christ en concreto (specific); through the realization that genuine knowledge of God is never an abstract academic endeavor, it always entails the particular and scandalous approach to God that only comes through the Lamb slain before the foundations of the world. In other words, genuine religion and piety,  relative to the Christian, involves a committed and lively relationship with God; but one that is not initiated by humans in abstraction, instead one that is unilaterally provided for by the initiation and election of God in Christ. Some might consider this relational way for conceiving of knowledge of God as foolish and weak; but so goes the way of the Gospel.

What this all avoids is presenting a knowledge of God that is rooted, again, in philosophical speculation and even what counts today, most, as what it means to do good Christian evangelical theology. What we want to avoid, which Dag Hammarskjöld so eloquently describes is a presentation of a knowledge of the faith that in the end is perceptibly empty by the discerning and reflective human Christian or even non-Christian would-be knower. Note Hammarskjöld: “‘How many have been driven into outer darkness by empty talk about faith as something to be rationally comprehended, something “true”’.[3] If we follow Calvin’s lead, according to Gannon, we won’t be ‘driven into outer darkness’ when coming to know God in Christ; instead because of union and participation in and from life in Christ we will be “irresistibly” drawn deeper and deeper into the winsome and ineffable inner life of God, in Christ, wherein an effervescent and luminous knowledge of God’s life, by experience (properly understood), will be ever increasing and ever inviting.

Leaving on a Personal Note

I honestly do not think this is the approach people in the 21st century evangelical church, particularly in North America and the West, are being provided with. Instead, contra Calvin, what folks are being fed is a pablum of religio and pietas that come in that name only. In other words, people are being encouraged, if they want to press deep into God, to engage with God from a philosophical and ‘natural’ approach to him. What makes this hard for folks to discern is that so much of what they are being fed has been conflated and couched in a Christian (i.e. Reformed) heritage that has this type of heart-warmed-over affectionate “piety” associated with it; but when that person digs deeper into the intellectual framework that is funding this “piety” what in fact they will find is a highly philosophical apparatus for knowing God that has more to do with the classical Philosophers of ancient Greece than it does with God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ.

It seriously agitates me that this is what counts as engaging with God for the evangelical Christian today. I blame institutions such as The Gospel Coalition, Together 4 the Gospel, and other associations of evangelicals for much of this; i.e. at least as this is making its way into the broader community of evangelical Christians in North America. We need to return to the sources, ad fontes, truly; but may that be understood to be genuinely rooted in God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ alone. May that be understood to be grounded in an actual framework that genuinely is relational and personal, and works from the “foundation” that the Triune God is indeed ‘the ground and grammar’ of all things; particularly and mostly of knowledge of Godself.

[1] Gannon Murphy, Pietas, Religio, and the God Who Is, in Myk Habets and Bobby Grow eds., Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications an Imprint of Wipf&Stock Publishers, 2012), 159-60.

[2] NASB.

[3] See Jason Goroncy’s post, On Empty Talk About Faith, accessed 05-16-2017.

Providing Some Theological Correction for John Calvin’s Doctrine of Assurance: From Evangelical Calvinism, Volume 2

I think I am going to start doing some posts that refer to our just released book Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion; in other words, I will share particular quotes from particular chapters, and do what I do as a blogger: reflect and
engage with that material. In this post I will briefly engage with something I wrote in my personal chapter for the book entitled: “Assurance is of the Essence of Saving Faith: Calvin, Barth, Torrance and the ‘Faith of Christ.’ In my chapter I offer a constructive critique of Calvin’s doctrine of assurance of salvation, while also constructively picking up on the themes within it that indeed fit well with the type of Christ concentrated/conditioned understanding of all things that Evangelical Calvinism is becoming known;  particularly, of course, as we rely on Barth and Torrance for much of our theological impulses. In our volume 1 Evangelical Calvinism book Myk Habets and I co-wrote a chapter wherein we offered 15 theological thesis that he and I see as the kind of touchstone contours of thought that we see as definitive for our style of EC thinking. One of those was that we believe, along with John Calvin, that assurance of salvation is of the essence of faith. My chapter in this new volume 2 actually takes a critical look at that through critique offered by the theological soundings present in Barth’s and Torrance’s theological offerings.

That said, part of the critique I made of Calvin on this front gets into Calvin’s doctrine of election/reprobation, and how he deploys the absolutum decretum. This doctrine, and the way Calvin’s kind of asymmetrical understanding of election and reprobation functions is the point at which I conclude that Calvin’s theological superstructure can’t really support his laudable thesis that assurance is the essence of saving faith. So I critique him on that front, and then contructively help him along through the theological categories of Barth and Torrance; with particular focus on the doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. But in critique of Calvin I actually appeal to a critique that Steve Holmes made of Calvin on Calvin’s doctrine of assurance and reprobation and temporary faith. Here’s the quote I quoted from Holmes on this in my chapter:

The weakness in Calvin’s account of predestination, I suggest, is that the doctrine of reprobation is detached, Christless and hidden in the unsearchable purposes of God. As such it bears no comparison with the doctrine of election, but remains something less than a Christian doctrine. There is, in Calvin’s account, a fundamental difference between election and reprobation. Contra Barth, Calvin’s failure is not that he teaches a symmetrical double decree (Barth speaks of ‘the classical doctrine with its opposing categories of “elect” and “reprobate”’), but that he has almost no room for the doctrine of reprobation in his account.

This difference, this asymmetry, is ‘a very amiable fault’; it gives insight into Calvin the pastor, whose heart and mind were full of the glories of God’s gift of salvation in Christ—so different from the caricature so often painted. Calvin’s doctrine fails not because of a double decree, because the ‘No’ is equal to the ‘Yes’, but because the ‘No’ does not really enter his thinking. It is a logical result of the ‘Yes’, and necessary for the ‘Yes’ truly to be ‘Yes’, but, whereas election is bound up in his theology, it is the very fact that he is seemingly not interested in reprobation, that he has not brought it within the Trinitarian scope of his system, that makes it such a weak point. That is to say, Calvin’s doctrine fails to be gospel, is not ‘of all words . . . the best’, because he gives no doctrinal content to his account of reprobation and hence has no meaningful symmetry between the two decrees.[1]

And I write, just following this quote from Holmes in my chapter:

For Holmes, Calvin is so enamored with the positive aspect of election for the elect of God in Christ, that reprobation, as a doctrine, really has little or no place in the theology of Calvin.20 Holmes believes this is further exacerbated when attempting to provide assurance for weary souls, because, as Holmes writes, “the point at which Calvin appears to engage in special pleading in his attempt to give assurance to believers is when he speaks of ‘temporary faith’ (III.24.7–9)….”[2]

In brief, the problem for Calvin, and for anyone who holds to a classical doctrine of double predestination, is that assurance of salvation will indeed be elusive for the weary soul. If Christ only reveals the positive side of predestination, election, and not the negative side, reprobation, then we end up with some serious issues in regard to giving an account for assurance of salvation. In Calvin’s mind the elect could look to the decree, to Christ, and see him as the mirror of election for them; but of course, as we leave off with reference to Holmes’ critique of Calvin, Calvin also had the concept of ‘temporary faith’ operative in his theology, coupled with the idea that reprobation was hidden back in the secret decree of God (unlike his doctrine of election which was revealed, according to Calvin, in Christ). If someone could “look” elect, but only have a temporary ineffectual faith, and if reprobation was not accounted for positively in Calvin’s doctrine of predestination, then it becomes clear how anxiety for folks could remain; and it did.

These are the areas I critique Calvin of; I use Holmes and Barth. But I don’t leave off there, and of course I offer more development and substantiation for my critique of Calvin on this front in the chapter. After a description of Calvin’s understanding of reprobation/election and its implications towards assurance of salvation, I get into Barth’s and Torrance’s theology as a helper and constructive course correction for Calvin. I point up Barth’s reification of the classical doctrine of election/reprobation, and then how Torrance also develops that; I show, in contrast to Calvin’s doctrine here, how they have the resources to actually offer a real doctrine of assurance precisely at the point where Calvin’s doctrine is less than laudable: i.e. when we start talking about election and reprobation.

I don’t leave off with a negative note in regard to Calvin though; I show how he offered a properly Christ concentrated mode of theology in other areas of his theology, particularly when that came to his double grace and union with Christ conceptions of salvation and Christology.

Anyway, maybe this will whet your appetite enough to go and buy our book. If not I’ll share stuff from other chapters in order to give you all a feel for what to expect. Our authors really did bring a set of stellar contributions to make this volume 2 the outstanding work that I think it is.

[1] Holmes, Listening To The Past, 129–30 in Bobby Grow, “Assurance is of the Essence of Saving Faith: Calvin, Barth, Torrance and the ‘Faith of Christ’,” in Myk Habets and Bobby Grow eds., Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2017), 39.

[2] Bobby Grow, “Assurance is of the Essence of Saving Faith,” 39-40.

Reading Scripture with Calvin and the Inevitability of Theological Exegesis for All

The following is a post I wrote many years ago now; it’s rather short and to the point, but it’s about a very important thing that continues to remain a problem johncalvinsickbedfor many a Christian. It can be a very positive thing once the Christian Bible reader can be humble enough, and/or critical enough to come to recognize the inevitable reality that it is. What I am referring to is the reality of theological exegesis; we all do it, and it has been done ever since the Patristic beginning (meaning the theology that was developed in the so called ecumenical councils; the theology we consider orthodox today relative to the Trintarian and Christological grammar we employ as Christians). The following post broaches this topic once again, I can only hope that if you don’t realize that the way you read Scripture comes from a particular theological tradition, that in fact you will indeed come to realize that you do in fact read Scripture from a particular theological tradition[s]. Here’s what I had to say, appealing to John Calvin, back some time ago.

. . . Calvin, like the other reformers, understood that scripture could not stand without a framework of intepretation. And that framework ultimately supported his theological conclusions. This was precisely how it worked in Reformed, Lutheran and Catholic churches of the sixteenth century.[1]

I have recently been in a dialogue with a guy who clearly loves the Lord. We have been discussing the idea that God is the Gospel. This idea actually troubles this fellow, “that God is the Gospel,” he has said:

I’ve been going over this and talking it over with people. I am unwilling to say that God is the gospel. The gospel is the proclamation of the saving redemptive work of Christ. That is the way scripture defines the word “gospel”. It’s very specific. To go beyond that is to go beyond the teaching of scripture, the way scripture defines the term for us and I am unwilling to go there.

The reasons supporting the phrase “God is the gospel” presented so far are not based on exegesis of scripture, but rather on philosophical reasoning. In fact I find the reasoning to be specious. By the same reasoning one might conclude that God is the author of sin. Logic would lead us to believe that was true if we were not fenced in by the limits of scripture.

For this gentleman, the Gospel is strictly a verb, and is not a subject too — which it is. Not to digress, but to illustrate, in contemporary ways, the importance of Calvin’s own approach to scripture. That is, part of interpretation is to recognize that we are indeed interpreting. And that it is okay, and necessary, to go deep into the inner logic and implication of scriptures’ own assumptions. Calvin was aware of the fact that we all have grids of interpretation that we bring to the text, and part of this “spiraling” process of interpreting scripture is to allow scripture and Christ’s life to impose its own categories of thought upon our preconceptions.

In our case, with the fellow I mention above, if he realized that even his desire to read scripture in the way that he does (rather “woodenly”), is in fact a consequence of his prior commitment to an interpretive framework; then he would quickly realize that “his commitment” itself is not “scripture.” That his interpretive paradigm in fact — and I think this is safe to say — is resting on a certain philosophical arrangement that, unfortunately, is unbeknownst to this well intending brother in Christ.


[1] Bruce Gordon, Calvin, 108.


John Calvin in His Commentaries on Christocentricity [3]

Here is John Calvin commenting on Colossians 1:15:

The sum is this — that God in himself, that is, in his naked majesty, is invisible and that not to the eyes of the body merely, but also to the calvinpostageunderstandings of men, and that he is revealed to us in Christ alone, that we may behold him as in a mirror. For in Christ he shews us his righteousness, goodness, wisdom, power, in short, his entire self. We must, therefore, beware of seeking him elsewhere, for everything that would set itself off as a representation of God, apart from Christ, will be an idol.[1]

And on Philippians 2:6:

. . . As, then God is known by means of his excellences, and his works are evidences of his eternal Godhead, (Rom. I. 20,) so Christ’s divine essence is rightly proved from Christ’s majesty, which he possessed equally with the Father before he humbled himself. As to myself, at least, not even all devils would wrest this passage from me — inasmuch as there is in God a most solid argument, from his glory to his essence, which are two things that are inseparable.[2]

Two eloquent statements, by Calvin, on (a.) Positive Theology, so that “knowledge of God” is limited to Christ alone — and not searching around for other “[sophist]icated” ways to talk about God (all you conceptually oriented scholastics out there). And (b.) on the relationship between the ontological/immanent nature of God, and the‘evangelical’/economic nature of God. Calvin believed that the ‘works and miracles’ (“his glory”) are the external and univocal expression of His eternal being perichoretically united to the Father and the Holy Spirit. In other words, Calvin didn’t think that there was “a God behind the back of Jesus;” but that who Christ revealed Himself to be, was the ‘exact representation’ and externalization of the coinhering glory (Jn. 17) that He has always shared with the Father by the communion of the Holy Spirit. So as John the Evangelist records Jesus saying:

If ye had known me, ye also should have known my Father also: and from henceforth ye know him, and have seen him. 8. Philip saith unto him, Lord, shew us the Father, and it sufficeth us. 9. Jesus saith unto him, Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known me, Philip? He that hath seen me hath seen the Father; and how sayest thou then, shew us the Father? 10. Believest thou not that I am in the Father, and the Father in me? The words that I speak unto you I speak not of myself: but the Father that dwelleth in me, he doeth the works. 11. Believe me that I am in the Father, and the Father in me: or else believe me for the very works’ sake. John 14:7-11 KJV

This is all Calvin is getting at. When we do theology, when we work in the realm of “Christian epistemology,” we are strictly limited to doing Christology. If we want to know what the Father is like, if we want to talk about what God is like; then we are limited to looking at Jesus for all the proper boundaries and emphases that He wants us to know. Calvin would probably be appalled to see how his name has been applied to an theological methodology that has gone astray from this narrow framing provided by Calvin in his commentaries.


[1] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians, trans. John Pringle, 150.

[2] Ibid., 56.

[3] Originally posted at another blog in 2010.


What Does the Practical Syllogism [assurance of salvation] Have to Do With Modern Theology’s Turn-to-the-Subject?

For people concerned about such things—I haven’t come across anyone who seems to be for a long time now, which normally I would think is a good thing, but I’m afraid that the reason despairwhy is not for a good reason—the doctrine of assurance of salvation and certainty about one’s eternal destiny has a long pedigree in the history of the church’s ideas. If you are someone who has struggled with this, and would like to get a handle on where it came from in the history of ideas, then this post is for you (there’s also a twist to this post as the title suggests).

It all started, it can be surmised, back in the days of late medieval and early reformational theology; an apparatus known as the practical syllogism came to the fore, and is what Protestant’s appealed to in an attempt to grasp a sense of certitude about whether or not they were one of the elect of God. It starts early on in the Protestant genesis, and maturates in unhealthy ways as we get into Puritan England, particularly in the theology of William Perkins. Stephen Strehle provides a type of genealogy for the development of the practical syllogism.

Deducing Salvation

The practical syllogism began to be sure much like the doctrine of eternal security, looking to ascertain one’s election a posteriori from its “signs” or “marks.” However, this time instead of focusing upon the promises of God as revealed in Christ, the concentration shifted toward the faith and works of those who would obtain and partake of those promises. The faith and works of one’s salvation experience became signs through which a true believer could discern his relationship to Christ’s promises and his election before the Father. It was all a simple deduction: “Every one that believes is the child of God: But I doe beleeve: Therefore I am the child of God.” This practical syllogism became a significant feature in most accounts of the Reformed orthodox and unfortunately turned the faith of the church away from Christ and toward an inspection of oneself and the fruits of true salvation.

The precise history of the doctrine is not so clear, although we do find certain theologians of note who were influenced in its publication and help us to trace its development. Calvin as we have noted is not a party to this as his focus remains centered upon Christ and his promises throughout his works. While he might at certain points speak of works as providing some assistance to a troubled conscience, they are considered only secondary means of consolation, and generally when he looks at himself Calvin finds nothing but despondency and condemnation. Theodore de Beza, who succeeded Calvin at Geneva, did tend, however, to reverse this order and must be considered prominent in the initial dissemination of the doctrine. He speaks of the practical syllogism a few times in his works, maintaining that it is the “first step” by which we progress toward the “first cause” of our salvation. While it is not a major emphasis of his, just the mere mention of it in his works is all that was needed. His very stature as the only theological professor at Geneva from 1564-1600 and practically all Reformed Europe for that matter would insure its place in the Reformed tradition, along with the rest of his Aristotelian (non-Christocentric) program, as we shall see later. As far as other important figures, Jerome Zanchi, a theologian from Strasbourg and disciple of Calvin, must also be accorded his place in the ascent and prevalence of the doctrine, perhaps providing an even earlier inspiration from Beza. He supplies in his works a syllogistic argument that displays the same basic structure of Beza’s and orthodoxy’s formulation but without supplying the specific name (indicating an early date). He then exhorts the believer to look within, not without, to find Christ working. Zanchi will prove to exert a major influence not only in Europe but especially in England among the Puritans where the doctrine will receive its most protracted and painstaking treatment. The Calvinists will hereafter speak of faith and certitude as involving a “serious exploration of oneself,” a “reflexive act” in which “faith in one self is felt,” and an inner knowledge of what one “feels and believes.” All of this resulted, of course, as they forsook the Christocentric orientation of Calvin for Aristotle, as well as the sacramental basis of personal assurance in Luther, which we had emphasized earlier. The quest for certitude had now devolved into an introspective life from which only depravity and uncertainty could be found, as well as a calculus, deduced from a more general promise and the Christ who made it, both of which seemed strangely at a distance. The Puritans, as we said, serve as the most notable example of this turn and should be accorded special mention in the study of assurance. In contrast to the perfunctory manner in which many of the Calvinists treated the doctrine, often reserving a mere page or two in otherwise prodigious tomes, the Puritans produced numerous and voluminous treatises upon the doctrine, considering it to be the most pressing of all religious issues.[1]

Anyone familiar with Richard Muller’s writings will immediately recognize the critique he would make against Strehle’s development; particularly the idea that Beza, contra Calvin, took Reformed theology into Aristotelian and philosophical modes of thought. I myself am critical of Strehle’s idea that Calvin was purely Christocentric when it comes to this issue; in fact in my forthcoming chapter in our EC2 book, I argue, along with Barth and others, that Calvin actually contributed to a non-Christocentric trajectory when dealing with this particular issue of assurance of salvation.

But none of the above withstanding, in a general way Strehle provides a faithful accounting, in my view, for how the practical syllogism developed and made its way into Puritan theology. What I would like to suggest, though, is that this development, this turn to the self, it could be argued at an intellectual-heritage level, contributed to the modern turn to the subject that is often, at least theologically, attributed to the work of someone like Friedrich Schleiermacher. Kelly Kapic sketches Schleiermacher, and his interlocutors this way:

The genius of Schleiermacher’s system is that he takes his anthropological emphases and pulls his entire theology through this grid. Arguably this creates an anthropocentric theology, since he consciously grounds his methods in human experience. This understandably provoked many questions. For example, Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–1872), a one-time student of Schleiermacher, later turned this perspective on its head, concluding that there really is no theology at all, since it is all ultimately reducible to anthropology. God is nothing more than the projection of human desires and feelings, but not a reality in itself. Nodding in Schleiermacher’s direction, Dutch theologian G. C. Berkouwer later commented that “theological anthropocentrism is always a more serious danger than secular anthropocentrism, since we, from the very meaning of theology, might expect that it would not misunderstand man as centrum.” Karl Barth, especially in his younger years, also chastened Schleiermacher with his famous quip: “One cannot speak of God simply by speaking of man in a loud voice,” since doing so means you will misunderstand both God and man. Finally, Paul Tillich worried that Schleiermacher’s language and emphasis on “feeling,” which he admits was commonly misunderstood, nevertheless contributed to the exodus of men from German churches.  Although this appears to me an unfair charge to level against Schleiermacher, it is fair to say that his proposal to orient all religion, and consequently the truth of theology, to Gefühl does widen the canvas on which theological anthropology will be painted by including more than rationality and will as the core of being human.[2]

It might seem like a stretch to suggest that the type of theology produced by someone like Schleiermacher, or moderns in general, can be attributed by antecedent to what we see developed in the theologies that produced something like the practical syllogism, but I don’t think it is too big of a stretch. I see at least a couple of links: 1) there is an informing anthropology where anthropology starts from a philosophical starting point rather than a Christian Dogmatic one. In other words, the humanity of Jesus Christ, for Beza and Scheiermacher alike is not the ground for what it means to be a human at a first-order level, as such within this abstraction, even from the get go, there is of necessity a turn to the human subject as its own self-defining terminus; i.e. there is not external ground by which humanity can be defined in this frame, instead it is humanity as absolute (obviously at a second order after-this-fact level, Beza, Schleiermacher, et al. then attempt to bring Christ’s humanity into the discussion). 2) There is a methodological focus on a posteriori discovery in regard to knowing God and knowing self before God in practical syllogism theology as well as turn to the subject theology (pre-modern and modern respectively). This in and of itself is not problematic, per se, but it is problematic when informed antecedently by an anthropology that is, at a first order level, detached from Jesus Christ’s humanity as definitive. Again, if humans start with a general sense of humanity devoid of the humanity of Christ as its primal ground, and attempt to know God and place themselves before God from that starting point there are devastating consequences. One of the primary consequences is that all theologizing from that point on, coram Deo, must start epistemologically and ontologically, from below; i.e. from my humanity, from your humanity. At the end of all of  this we end up with a rationalizing affect that colors the way we attempt to negotiate our standing and understanding with and before God.

So What?

Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance, both modern theologians,  sought to invert and flip turn-to-the-subject theology on its head by thinking from truly Christian Dogmatic taxis (or ‘order’). Torrance made a special point of emphasizing how an order-of-being must come before and order-of-knowing; in other words, the idea that God’s being precedes our being, and that all conditions for knowing God and thus self (cf. Calvin) must start within this frame and order of things. I.e. There is no general or abstract sense of humanity, if we are going to have genuine knowledge of God, ourselves, and the world, then we must start with the concrete humanity of Jesus Christ. Barth, in his own ways, makes these same points, particularly by flipping Immanuel Kant on his head, and as a consequence flipping Schleiermacher on his.

I would contend that Western society, in general, still is living out what this turn-to-the-subject has meant for society at large. In fact, in the 21st century we see this type of turn in hyper-form; we might want to call it normative relativism. Ideas do have consequences, as such I think getting an idea of where they come from can help us engage those ideas critically; and when needed we are in a better position to repudiate and/or reify ideas that might ultimately be deleterious to our souls.

What I have suggested in this post remains quite general, and some would say reductionistic; but I think there is something to what I’m getting at. Since this is a blog post, and a long one, it will have to simply remain at the level of suggestion.

[1] Stephen Strehle, The Catholic Roots of the Protestant Gospel: Encounter between the Middle Ages and the Reformation (Leiden/New York/Köln: E.J. Brill, 1995), 37-41.

[2] Kelly M. Kapic, “Anthropology,” in Kelly M. Kapic and Bruce L. McCormack, eds., Mapping Modern Theology: A Thematic and Historical Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Publishing Group, 2012), 192 Scribd version.

Assurance of Salvation in Martin Luther, with Reference to Barth and Torrance. ‘I absolve you!’

Myk Habets and I have edited our volume two Evangelical Calvinism book due out in the early half of 2017. My personal chapter in that volume is on John Calvin’s, Karl Barth’s, and Thomas Torrance’s doctrine of assurance of salvation. This topic has always been of luther_martin-3interest to me, at one point it was something I struggled with; and I’ve known others (who are very close to me) who have struggled with this as well. Currently, I’m not really sure many evangelicals struggle with this anymore; mostly, I would suggest, because of the kind of superficiality present in most evangelical churches today when it comes to actual doctrine and doctrinal understanding or interest (and I’m including the leadership levels as well). That said, the rest of this post will be dealing with this ancient doctrine; we will have particular focus on how this doctrine functioned in the thought and theology of Martin Luther.

Luther, as so many know, was an Augustinian monk; to say he was devout and driven would be an understatement. He, not unlike many in his day, struggled deeply with assurance of salvation. Because of the teaching of the medieval Roman Catholic church people could never really know with certainty if they had done enough penance and engaged in enough heartfelt contrition to know if they were right with God; the result was that people languished with a sense of doubt and fear before a perceived wrathful God. It was this framework Luther was succored in as a monk, indeed it was the air he breathed his whole life; and he was tormented.

Without getting into Luther’s whole biography, and theological antecedents, suffice it to say Luther needed a way out; he needed an assuaged conscience before God. He became a monk with the goal of finding such consolation; but would he find it? As most of us know, yes, indeed, Luther did think he found it; but as many of us might not know he didn’t find it by abandoning his Catholic medieval framework of thought, instead he found it afresh as he read the New Testament for himself. Luther came to realize that he could only stand before God by trusting God’s Word, by standing by faith with the understanding that the righteousness of God wasn’t something he could muster up, instead it was an ‘alien righteousness’ external to Luther and all humanity found in Christ. With this new found insight Luther reified the Catholic penitential system by grounding it in a theology of God’s Word, and understanding that as the priest spoke absolution over people it was in actuality the Word of God itself. Luther was finally able to find certainty of standing before God, not by cooperating with God in penance, or by mustering up heartfelt contrition, but by looking to the cross of Jesus Christ itself; by knowing that the righteousness he needed before God was not latent in him, but explicit in Jesus Christ. Stephen Strehle explains all of this for us this way:

Luther, the founder of the Protestant doctrine, often spoke of his fifteen (sometimes twenty) years as a monk in the Catholic Church as a time of bondage to the works of self-righteousness and the fear of God. As a monk he did not trust in the righteousness of Christ but in the incessant performance of vigils, prayers, and fasts—a righteousness that was a veritable “cesspool and delightful kingdom of the devil.” Such righteousness, of course, brought nothing but despair to Luther. His confessions did not bring help or solace, for his sins, he felt, were too great to mention and his contrition never sufficient to satisfy the demands of true righteousness. His experience was thus filled with fear, doubt, and torment, and his concept of Catholicism became slanted accordingly, as he imputed those anxieties to the church’s own teachings and practice.

Luther, however, did not abandon the practice of penance in order to rediscover his Gospel elsewhere, as is so often supposed among scholars, but found assurance and faith by reinterpreting the purpose of the sacrament along a direction other than the one that we have just witnessed. Instead of pointing to the worthiness of one’s own righteousness or contrition, which is indeed the kingdom of the devil and leads to despair, Luther pointed the penitent in another direction. He exhorted the penitent to listen and trust in the words of comfort, uttered by the priest in the sacrament, as the very word of God. He exhorted them to no longer trust in their “contrition of the heart, the confession of the mouth, or satisfaction of works,” but to listen to the mercy that God freely offers them through the priest. The priest’s role after all is said to bring comfort to those who are shackled with anguish over their sins. His words must be seen as God’s words; his actions God’s actions; his forgiveness God’s forgiveness. When he pronounces the simple words “I absolve you,” this must be seen as a special pronouncement from God to the individual that his sins have been forgiven.

This is how Luther first became so absolutely assured of his standing before God. God had told him personally. This word was not a promise spoken generally to all men or made contingent upon the fulfillment of conditions, always subject to human frailty and their misconceptions. It was a word spoken from God’s mouth to Luther’s ear. When the priest said, “I absolve you,” the “I” was God and the “you” was Luther.[1]

Strehle gives a sense of how Luther reified assurance of salvation; placing the referent for “certitude” no longer in self, but in Jesus Christ. In my view what Luther did serves only as a first step; he needs to be taken further.

Just as with Calvin, Luther offers pregnant contours of thought that are weighted with a Christ concentration just waiting for further development. I contend that that type of development is exactly what we’ve been given in the theologies of Barth and Torrance. Here’s what I mean with reference to a Barthian development. Here Barth offers critique of Calvin’s doctrine of election and assurance; while Luther was different than Calvin in some important ways (especially in the early Luther we just had elucidated for us by Strehle), the Christ-direction that Barth takes this would equally serve Luther just as well as it serves Calvin. Barth writes:

How can we have assurance in respect of our own election except by the Word of God? And how can even the Word of God give us assurance on this point if this Word, if this Jesus Christ, is not really the electing God, not the election itself, not our election, but only an elected means whereby the electing God—electing elsewhere and in some other way—executes that which he has decreed concerning those whom He has—elsewhere and in some other way—elected? The fact that Calvin in particular not only did not answer but did not even perceive this question is the decisive objection which we have to bring against his whole doctrine of predestination. The electing God of Calvin is a Deus nudus absconditus.[2]

The moral is the Word of God. What is missing, in an explicit way, in both Calvin and Luther is a focus on the vicarious humanity of Christ. We see the lineaments of that in both of them at important points, but not in explicit ways. For Barth, as for Torrance, the word of absolution that Luther found in the priest’s words, were actually first spoken by God over the humanity of Jesus Christ, for us. As we are in union with Christ and his vicarious humanity, the ground of our assurance isn’t found from the lips of a priest, or pastor, they are found in the very Word of God Himself; we look directly and thus not indirectly to Christ. The mediation isn’t through sacraments, it is directly given through Christ; the mediation isn’t through decrees, it is directly through Jesus Christ. We look to Christ.

Martin Luther and John Calvin, as noted, provided a very fruitful and rich trajectory; Barth and Torrance stood on their shoulders (and other’s), and took it straight to the heavenlies in Christ. Assurance isn’t a concept, it isn’t something we generate; it’s Jesus Christ.

[1] Stephen Strehle, The Catholic Roots of the Protestant Gospel: Encounter between the Middle Ages and the Reformation (Leiden/New York/Köln: E.J. Brill, 1995), 8-10.

[2] Karl Barth, “CDII/2,” 111 cited by Oliver D. Crisp, “I Do Teach It, but I Also Do Not Teach It: The Universalism of Karl Barth (1886-1968),” in ed. Gregory MacDonald, All Shall Be Well: Explorations in Universalism and Christian Theology, from Origen to Moltmann (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), 355.

The Fallen Humanity of Christ with Reference to John Calvin and Oliver Crisp

I just finished reading a really provocative and intriguing essay by Ho-Jin Ahn in the Scottish Journal of Theology. In it he takes Oliver Crisp to task (at least at the ground clearing level) on Crisp’s argument that Christ could not have assumed a fallen sinful humanity in the incarnation; since according to Crisp (and the scholastic [speculative] tradition from which he argues), if Christ truly young-calvintook on a depraved humanity, then he would have needed a Savior himself. Ahn helpfully relocates Crisp’s placement of this discussion from the Augustinian “original sin,” and moves it into the realm of Christology (which is where this dialogue ought to take place!). Ahn, in the process of relocating this discussion, develops John Calvin’s understanding on this issue; Ahn looks, in a dialectical way, at Calvin’s commentaries and his Institute. In a nutshell, what Ahn concludes is that Calvin might ‘appear’ to hold to something like Crisp (that Christ assumed an unfallen human nature), but in the final analysis, and at an interpretive/functional level, Calvin thinks from a view that sees Christ entering into the depths of our fallen humanity and redeeming us from the inside out through his vicarious humanity for us. Here is Ahn’s conclusion:

It is unreasonable for some theologians to argue for Christ’s unfallen humanity in the context of the doctrine of original sin because Christ himself overcame the power of sin and death in his fallen humanity. In the case of Calvin’s understanding of Christ’s humanity, we see that there is a tension between the nature and the state of Christ’s person. Calvin believes that Christ assumed our true humanity, lived a perfect life, and was sinless according to the Chalcedonian Definition. Thus, Calvin denies the fallenness of Christ’s humanity in order to preserve the doctrine of Christ’s perfect innocence. However, unlike others who are in favour of Christ’s unfallen humanity, Calvin forcefully affirms the vicarious humanity of Christ in our corrupted state. Calvin affirms that Christ had to suffer from our existential problems according to the narratives of the Gospels. Moreover, the mortal human nature which Christ assumed shows solidarity with sinners and the vicarious humanity of Christ pro nobis. If Calvin were to accept the idea of the fallen nature of Christ, his thoughts on Christ’s humanity for us would be more persuasive. Yet it is noted that Calvin’s theological logic is ‘anti-speculative’ in that he focuses on what Christ has done for us in his true humanity.

Nevertheless, Calvin argues that the body of Christ himself is the temple of God through which we can come to the throne of God’s grace. Although Christ assumed our mortal body controlled by the power of sin and death after the Fall, Christ sanctified the body in his own person as the Mediator between God and all the fallen humanity and decaying creation. Furthermore, the reconciliation with God is not just attributed to the crucifixion of Christ in an external and forensic way but to the perfectly holy life of Christ who assumed our mortal body as a saviour in an internal and ontological perspective. Calvin’ s biblical views on the mortal body and its sanctification through the whole life fully describes the paradoxical character of Christ’s mystical incarnation in which Christ became a true human being like one of us without becoming a fallen sinner. I conclude that, according to Calvin, the vicarious humanity of Christ means that for the sake of our salvation Christ assumed a mortal body like ours and lived a perfect life in our miserable state. Therefore, Christ’s fallen humanity for us is the guarantee of reconciliation.[1]

I concur with Ahn, and appreciate his insightful analysis on Calvin’s view of the vicarious humanity of Christ. Ahn would make a great Evangelical Calvinist; since the vicarious humanity of Christ is one of the touchstones of what it means to work within the mood of Evangelical Calvinism. It is this kind of Christ conditioned view of salvation that gets us into the trinitarian depth dimension of salvation that the classic forensic-juridical view of salvation simply cannot provide. Calvin is front and center for us, and shines brightest right here; that is when he emphasises the center of salvation in Christ.

The reality is, as Ahn develops in his essay, as Gregory of Nazianzus is oft quoted ‘the unredeemed is the unhealed’; and if Christ did not vicariously (participatorily-representatively) enter our fallen human state, then we are of all men most to be pitied. Alas, we remain in our sins, and we have no real hope or answer to our sin problem; which is a depraved heart toward God (who is salvation in his very life!). If Christ does not participate with us (fully), then we cannot participate with him fully in the divine plenitude of his shared life with the Father and Holy Spirit; in other words, we are not saved. This is why understanding and meditating on the vicarious humanity of Christ is so fundamental to the Christian’s life and spirituality; because it represents the very heart and deep caverns of the Gospel itself.

Original posted at another blog of mine: The Evangelical Calvinist In Plain Language

[1] Ho-Jin AhnSJT 65(2): 145–158 (2012) C Scottish Journal of Theology Ltd 2012 doi:10.1017/S0036930612000026, Ahn’s bio/contact: Korean Central Presbyterian Church of Queens, Bayside, NY 11364, USA


Picking at Calvin’s Wax Nose: Union with Christ or Forensic Salvation? An Impasse

Often here at The Evangelical Calvinist I refer to the language of union with Christ, and Calvin’s “mystical union” (unio mystica). This is the stuff that makes ‘EC’ go round; that is pressing this Pauline idea of ‘in Christ’ theology as the key of our soteriological framework. In line with Thomas Torrance, and through his development of Scottish Theology, in his book “Scottish Theology;” I often pick up on the way this was developed, contra the Westminster development of Calvin that takes hold of Calvin’s theology of the Law, and its relation to understanding salvation. J. Todd Billings says that either one of these streams misses Calvin’s theology as a whole, and thus distorts Calvin if we try to emphasize either his relational over and against his juridical (legal), or vice versa. Billings writes:

[T]here is an ‘Anti-Legal School’ in Calvin scholarship that tends to emphasize Calvin’s distance from scholasticism, his fluidity in the use of image and metaphor, and his rich Trinitarian theology. Language about forensic transaction is generally treated with suspicion, in preference for the more organic images of transformation. In reaction to this school, the ‘legal’ aspects of Calvin’s thought tend to be emphasized by others, particularly his distinctively Reformed concerns for the doctrines of justification and imputation. Accounts of one school of thought tend to either ignore or deny the other side. . . . I will argue that the place of the human is illuminated in Calvin’s theology of participation by seeing a Trinitarian account of the duplex gratia as the framework for participation. For Calvin, participation in Christ must emphasize the legal and the transformative language in the ‘double grace’ of justification and sanctification. In prayer, believers act in ascetic struggle to pray rightly, yet the foundation for their active struggle is a recognition of God’s free pardon. Likewise, in the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, believers act in response to God’s justifying act in a way that incorporates them into a Trinitarian soteriology: the Father is revealed as gracious and generous through his free pardon of believers in their union with Christ; this union also involves the activation of believers by the Spirit—toward a life of piety and love, requiring ascetic effort and activity. Believers are made active in the ecclesial and social community. A participatory, Trinitarian account of the duplex gratia plays an important role in Calvin’s theological account of the sacraments. ‘Participation’ in baptism is so real that it is almost biological. Celebrating the Lord’s Supper involves participating in Christ’s ascension to heaven to feed on his life giving flsh and blood. Calvin’s theology of prayer and the sacraments is a theology that is theocentric, but also participatory, activating believers in love of God and neighbour as the body of Christ. [J. Todd Billings, Calvin, Participation, and the Gift: The Activity of Believers in Union with Christ, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 105-06]

This serves instructive for noting a certain reality; one that Billings is not intending to address here, but one that I believe is constructively available through the present thesis that Billings will proceed to develop throughout the rest of his chapter. What I want to highlight is the fact that both lines of thought—union with Christ/relational and forensic—are present in Calvin. Consequently, all things being equal, both strands can be found developed and emphasized within the tradition that bears Calvin’s name. This is precisely what we seek to elucidate and alert folks to with our forthcoming book on Evangelical Calvinism, and what I, personally, have been doing here with my blog (at points). Calvin’s nose is very “waxy,” and thus it should be expected that given the various predispositions of people in general; that aspects of Calvin’s corpus will be developed over and against other aspects—and this shaped by various socio-cultural constraints present throughout Calvinism’s history and development.

Billings’ point is that to negate one aspect of Calvin from his other side is to misread and misunderstand Calvin’s full bodied theological thrust. Nevertheless, the reality is, is that Calvin has been read through various foci and lenses; the history bears this out. This takes us back to Richard Muller’s thesis that Calvin should not be seen as the touchstone of what it means to be a Calvinist. In some ways this is true, there is a difference between being Calvinian (which is what Billings is developing in his book—Calvin’s theology) and Calvinist; I would suggest though that a theologian could only ever be a Calvinist (Evangelical, Westminster, Spiritual Brethren, et al) if in fact she has a shred of Calvinian in her first. My point, Calvin’s nose is wax; and I would say that this is a good thing, precisely because we are as Reformed Christians, people who interpret and re-interpret Calvin and any teacher through Scripture. Those who appreciate Calvin, and try to appropriate him constructively through Scripture; will almost necessarily end up being a Calvinist (vs. Calvinian), and, of course, I would propose that the best of us will end up an Evangelical Calvinist! 😉

*repost (an old one)

Karl Barth’s Developing Theo-Anthropology in Discussion with Amandus Polanus and John Calvin

For Karl Barth it is a frivolous pursuit to attempt to psychologize a theological anthropology, and yet in the Tradition (both Roman Catholic and Protestant) this is exactly what has obtained. For the Western tradition the appeal, particularly for Post-Reformation scholastic theologians was to appeal to an Aristotelian understanding of what it means to be human; an appeal to what has been called a faculty psychology (i.e. affections, intellect, and will)–we see this approach in Augustine, Medieval theology in general, Thomas Aquinas, et al. As Barth engaged with various post-Reformed theologians, like Amandus Polanus he was pushed up against this reality; and he rejected it (and I would add: rightly so). Here is Reeling Brouwer describing Barth’s engagement with Polanus’s theological-anthropology (and as you read this you will see that Brouwer quotes Barth directly as well – this quote from Brouwer comes from the context of him discussing Barth’s engagement with Polanus’s doctrine of creation):

For the second issue, namely man, Polanus does not divide the material into a dichotomy. Instead he works – as he does more frequently – with the Aristotelian division into definitio (hominis) [V. 27], causa efficiens [V. 28], materia [V. 29 – 31], forma [V. 32], and finis [V. 33]. Here the body is, of course, the matter, and the soul the form of human being. Barth addresses Polanus’s definition of man in the paragraph entitled ‘Phenomena of the Human’. This is already an indication of his objections to this definition. Although Polanus qualifies it (after the analysis of the nomen) as the beginning of a contemplatio theologica hominis, Barth cannot see the real theological point in this definition and considers it to be a description of the mere phenomenon of a human which nevertheless does not point to the real man. He writes:

Polanus opens with the [in Barth’s eyes] clear-cut Aristotelian definition: homo est animal ratione praeditum. He explains it as follows: [definitio haec duabus partibus constat: genere & differentia specifica:] ‘man belongs to the genus animal, that is he is a substanti corpore organico et anima vegetante atque sententie & loco movente constans’ [Polanus refers here to Gen 2,7 and 1 Cor 15,46 – 47]. The differentia specifica from other animals is that he is gifted with reason. By this we are to understand the vis intellectus, qua is logizetai, ratiocinatur et [ut Scholastici loquuntur] discurrit, hoc est ex uno aliud [deducit] vel aliud post aliud ordinat. Hence the opus seu officium of reason consists in discursus, i. e. in the swiftness [celeritas] with which his mind moves from one thing to another, from causes to effects, from effects to causes, and therefore to the knowledge of all things. This vis intellectus is not given to any other animal….

It is indisputable, Barth comments, that one here sees a phenomenon of the human. But the definition is already doubtful from a philosophical point of view and still more so with regard to its theological quality. What is the relationship between this result of (classical Greek-dualistic) human self understanding, namely an understanding of man’s own vis intellectus, and the knowledge of God as a knowledge of the covenant (in the sense of the opening Chapter of Calvin’s Institutes)?…[1]

What we see in this development of Brouwer, and in Barth’s critique of Polanus, reflects a very typical Western analytical development of what constitutes what it means to be a human being (i.e. anthropology). We also see Barth’s critique of the received Aristotelian intellectualist anthropology that sees the defining component for what makes a human, human over-against the other ‘animals’, is that humans have intellect and the ability to self-reflect, not only upon themselves, but upon God. Barth sees this as a very speculative way to conceive of humanity, as a philosophical convention that has nothing to do with theological development; and almost nothing to do with what he thinks philosophy (in the analytic tradition) has real access to. As we close the quote from Brouwer, he makes clear that Barth thought that a genuine theological anthropology could only delimit itself to the covenant; of God become man, and in Christ man exalted to participate in the ‘divine nature.’ But what does this mean for Barth?

Karl Barth in his little book The Humanity of God answers for us how humanity ought to be conceived of from within covenantal terms, from within a Calvinian[2] focus wherein knowledge of God provides for a genuine knowledge of what it means to be human; and of course for Barth this is grounded in the nexus of the only place that that reality has happened, in Christ (Logos ensarkos):

In Jesus Christ there is no isolation of man from God or of God from man. Rather, in Him we encounter the history, the dialogue, in which God and man meet together and are together, the reality of the covenant mutually contracted, preserved, and fulfilled by them. Jesus Christ is in His one Person, as true God, man’s loyal partner, and as true man, God’s. He is the Lord humbled for communion with man and likewise the Servant exalted to communion with God. He is the Word spoken from the loftiest, most luminous transcendence and likewise the Word heard in the deepest, darkest immanence. He is both, without their being confused but also without their being divided; He is wholly the one and wholly the other. Thus in this oneness Jesus Christ is the Mediator, the Reconciler, between God and man. Thus He comes forward to man on behalf of God calling for and awakening faith, love, and hope, and to God on behalf of man, representing man, making satisfaction and interceding. Thus He attests and guarantees to man God’s free grace and at the same time attests and guarantees to God man’s free gratitude. Thus He establishes in His Person the justice of God vis-à-vis man and also the justice of man before God. Thus He is in His Person the covenant in its fullness, the Kingdom of heaven which is at hand, in which God speaks and man hears, God gives and man receives, God commands and man obeys, God’s glory shines in the heights and thence into the depths, and peace on earth comes to pass among men in whom He is well pleased. Moreover, exactly in this way Jesus Christ, as this Mediator and Reconciler between God and man, is also the Revealer of them both. We do not need to engage in a free-ranging investigation to seek out and construct who and what God truly is, and who and what man truly is, but only to read the truth about both where it resides, namely, in the fullness of their togetherness, their covenant which proclaims itself in Jesus Christ.[3]

Barth still has a focus on ‘knowledge’ as the ground from which man can come to know what it means to be human, but unlike the scholastics (Polanus, et al.) Barth’s approach was not to interiorize this by focusing on various components of what might make man, man; instead Barth takes an exteriorizing approach that simply attempts to think from within the covenant that God established between Himself and creation, in general, and humans in particular, with His life in the Son (the One who elected our humanity for Himself) as the inner ground of the external reality we see and experience in the created order.

What we see in Barth, then, when it comes to developing a theological-anthropology is a principial Christocentric concentration wherein philosophical and psychological speculation is thrown out the window, and concrete theological theoanthropology is conceived of by inhabiting the reality of Bethlehem.

[1] Rinse H Reeling Brouwer, Karl Barth and Post-Reformation Orthodoxy (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2015), 64-5.

[2] See John Calvin, Institutes 1.I: ‘Without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God … Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists in two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But, while joined by many bonds, which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern. In the first place, no one can look upon himself without immediately turning his thoughts to the contemplation of God, in whom he “lives and moves” [Acts 17:28]. For, quite clearly, the mighty gifts with which we are endowed are hardly from ourselves; indeed, our very being is nothing but subsistence in the one God. Then, by these benefits shed like dew from heaven upon us, we are led as rivulets to the spring itself. Indeed, our very poverty better discloses the infinitude of benefits reposing in God….’ (p. 35-6, McNeill).

[3] Karl Barth, The Humanity of God (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1978), 46-7.

Calvin’s Assurance of Salvation and His Temporary Faith

Our Evangelical Calvinism, Volume 2. Dogmatics&Devotion is going to press very soon. My personal chapter takes a look at the doctrine of assurance of salvation. The way I approached this was to constructively critique Calvin’s view through Barth and Torrance. When I say constructively I mean that I noted some lack in Calvin’s offering while at the same time taking from Calvin the riches he has present in his theology as well. One lack of particular interest is Calvin’s conception of what later (like in the Puritan times) would be called ‘temporary faith.’ What this entailed was f593a-calvinsladderthat it was possible for someone to have all the external signs of an ‘elect’ person, but in reality turn out to be one of the reprobate. Suffice it to say that this teaching could cause considerable anxiety in those seeking to know whether they were indeed one of the elect; one thing that exacerbated this further was that for Calvin as well as for those who followed Calvin (historically), like the Post Reformed orthodox and Puritans, was that reprobation was not tied into the revealed will of God (in Christ) like election was, instead it was back in an absolute decree hidden in the remote will of God. Here is what Calvin writes in his Institutes describing what anachronistically we could call ‘temporary faith’ when applied to Calvin:

I know that to attribute faith to the reprobate seems hard to some, when Paul declares it the result of election [cf. I Thess. 1:4-5]. Yet this difficulty is easily solved. For though only those predestined to salvation receive the light of faith and truly feel the power of the gospel, yet experience shows that the reprobate are sometimes affected by almost the same feeling as the elect, so that even in their own judgment they do not in any way differ from the elect [cf. Acts 13:48]. Therefore it is not at all absurd that the apostle should attribute to them a taste of the heavenly gifts [Heb. 6:4-6]—and Christ, faith for a time [Luke 8:13]; not because they firmly grasp the force of spiritual grace and the sure light of faith, but because the Lord, to render them more convicted and inexcusable, steals into their minds to the extent that his goodness may be tasted without the Spirit of adoption…. Suppose someone objects that then nothing more remains to believers to assure themselves of their adoption. I reply: although there is a great likeness and affinity between God’s elect and those who are given a transitory faith, yet only in the elect does that confidence flourish which Paul extols, that they loudly proclaim Abba, Father [Gal. 4:6; cf. Rom. 8:15]. Therefore, as God regenerates only the elect with incorruptible seed forever [I Peter 1:23] so that the seed of life sown in their hearts may never perish, thus he firmly seals the gift of his adoption in them that it may be steady and sure.[1]

Calvin calls it ‘transitory faith’ (in translation anyway), but this doctrine is present in Calvin’s theology. Along with his doctrine of double predestination (even though how that actually plays out is also something worthy of critique, which I do in my chapter), this conception of ‘temporary faith’ is something that I believe needs to be left behind. The consequence of this doctrine points people inward and as R.T. Kendall rightly says it, it produces a ‘reflexive faith;’ a faith wherein we turn into ourselves prior to looking to Christ to attempt to discern whether or not we are indeed one of those for whom Christ died and elected.

Calvin held that ‘assurance is the essence of saving faith,’ but there are areas that need to be corrected and examined in Calvin’s theology in order to get to where he wanted to get in his affirmation here. I attempt to constructively do that in my forthcoming chapter, and I think I achieve that with the help of Barth and Torrance; i.e. offer a genuine Christ-conditioned doctrine of assurance of salvation—taking the good from Calvin (i.e. union with Christ and double grace theology), and leaving the not so good behind (his doctrines of election and temporary faith, respectively).

Interestingly much of this kind of theology lives on, whether that be in academic or popular (from the pulpit) forms. I just recently listened to a sermon wherein this kind of inward turned conception of salvation was offered to the laity. In other words it was taught that throughout the churches there are people who ‘think’ they are “saved” (or elect), but in the end they will find out after all that they weren’t. What a terrible doctrine; a doctrine that has no grounding in Jesus Christ, but instead in a rather moralistic religion wherein someone must maintain their salvation by behaving in a certain way (whatever way that might be), or by mustering up Jesus faces and emotions which, at the least, will make someone “feel” like they must be eternally saved. Rubbish!

The antidote to all of this is to ground salvation both objectively and subjectively in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. That’s what I develop in my chapter. You’ll have to buy our book when it comes out, and read how I do that.


[1] Inst., 3.2.11.